Some change ... some stability

With the exception of a few more 2009 recruiting commitments, LSU's 2009 squad is nearing completion.

LSU head coach Les Miles has announced his new staff, and the Tiger seem to have made it out of the worst season of Miles’ era with minimal losses. Despite season-long rumors of attrition, the Tigers seemed to make it out of a disappointing 2008 with only four losses up to this point – junior defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, sophomore wide receiver Ricky Dixon, redshirt freshman offensive guard Ernest McCoy, and junior quarterback Andrew Hatch, who is transferring back to Harvard.

It’s always a shame when players leave early, but I could never blame anyone in such a lucrative position for opting for the paycheck. Jean-Francois played an integral – albeit short - part in securing the 2007 national title, and based on LSU’s recent track record of getting guys into the NFL, I’m confident he’ll find his way onto a professional roster (earlier than many think if he performs well at the NFL Combine and LSU Pro Day).

Hatch won’t be heading off to the big leagues, but it’s incredibly obvious he made the right choice for his own interests. He was thrust into an incredibly odd situation – perhaps the only possible situation that would land him as the starting quarterback at a big-name program. As soon as Jarrett Lee replaced him in Auburn and performed well his chances of retaking the starting role took a major hit. When Jordan Jefferson replaced Lee and did even better, his chances of even reaching the field in a meaningful moment were pretty much obliterated.

Add in the arrival of super freshmen Russell Shepard and Chris Garrett, it’s very easy to see why Hatch decided to head back to Harvard – and good luck to him in all his endeavors there.

Fans never had an opportunity to see Dixon’s talent, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. He came into LSU as a three-star receiver, which means he’s probably good enough to be the first option at a smaller school. In three seasons with the Tigers he caught two passes for 13 yards.

Going into his junior season, Dixon was behind Brandon LaFell, Terrance Toliver, and both of LSU’s two Mitchells on the depth chart. On top of that there is the prospect of the Tigers’ bringing in a loaded wide receiver class, a committed four-star (Kenny Bell), a potential four-star commit (Kendall Kelly), and a potential five-star commit (Rueben Randle).

With the talent at hand and the possibility of bringing in these guys, the writing is on the wall. Kudos to Dixon for recognizing that and trying to further his career. Even if the guy’s got no NFL aspirations, there’s nothing fun about riding the bench for five years if you can go play the game you love somewhere else.

It doesn’t exactly count as attrition, but there’s also the bizarre story of Dexter Pratt to consider. Without any kind of inside information, it reminds me of the same type of nonsense that kept Patrick Peterson from enrolling for spring practice.

Pratt never made it to LSU, and the Tigers have the addition of five-star back Michael Ford to ease their pain. Craziness like this happens somewhere every year when signing day draws near, and my best opinion on it is to let it go. No matter how high-profile a recruit is, he’s still a 17-year old kid when it all boils down. Oklahoma State has the type of offense that allows any and all kinds of skill players to shine, and LSU will always have skilled backs knocking at the door if they continue to produce 1,000 yard rushers, BCS titles, and charismatic quarterbacks like Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard.

With these four gone and hopefully no other departures, it’s time to look ahead to next year’s team.

It speaks to the strength and tradition of LSU defensive lines in recent years that so many starters are leaving and absolutely no one is concerned about it. Senior defensive end Rahim Alem will be one of the SEC’s best defensive players in 2009, as he earned All-SEC honors as a backup with eight sacks.

The middle looks to be strong, especially if Charles Alexander is granted a sixth-year of eligibility, which we feel is likely. Drake Nevis is a likely candidate to start, as he had comparable numbers to Jean-Francois in four fewer starts. Highly-touted recruits Kentravis Aubrey and Al Woods will also have their chance to make an impression. And if that weren’t enough there’s the arrival of four and five-star tackles Akiem Hicks, Josh Downs and Chris Davenport.

The opposite end will be an interesting logjam of talent. Outside of Alem, the Tigers don’t have a proven defensive end but lots and lots of unproven talent. Chase Clement and Chancey Aghayere are two youngsters that have a chance to make a lot of noise, as well as redshirt sophomore Sidell Corely, and Lazarius ‘Pep’ Levingston finally seems to be at the top of the depth chart. If necessary, there is also Houston native Mike Brockers to consider, as well as a potential commitment from Sam Montgomery, Ed Stinson and/or Bennie Logan.

The vacancies along the line are certainly a big deal, but nothing this offseason is as important as Brandon LaFell withdrawing his name from NFL consideration. 

If you disagree consider this: Jordan Jefferson may very well be the beast we all think he is, but he’ll still be just a sophomore. One of the offense’s biggest voices, Herman Johnson, is off to the NFL. Demetrius Byrd is gone, and junior wide receiver Jared Mitchell may take his career to the baseball diamond permanently in this summer’s MLB Draft.

That leaves Charles Scott and LaFell to lead the Tigers’ offense, not only vocally but in production. The backfield behind Scott is loaded, but LaFell needs to bring along a very talented, but very young receiving corps. He needs to be there for Jefferson on the check down routes – curls, outs, ins, and whatnot while Toliver stretches the secondary downfield. He needs to be there in the spring to push everyone and he needs to be there in the summer to set the standard for the wide receivers that enter fall camp – be it Randle, Kelly, Bell, or even Andre DeBose by some stroke of luck.

If you remember the article we ran about LaFell in December, or if you’ve ever heard him talk about his time at LSU, it’s obvious he holds those that came before him – like Early Doucet – in extremely high regard. He needs to be that for Toliver and everyone else in line on the depth chart. And if he executes on field like he did in ’08, I fully believe he could go as high in the 2010 NFL Draft as Dwayne Bowe or Craig Davis.

LaFell’s change of heart opens the door for a big 2009 for Terrance Toliver. Toliver has totaled 506 yards and four touchdowns in just a handful of starts. Not exactly a bad performance for a guy who’s been pretty far down the depth chart. And for those of you that say he should’ve taken a top spot if he was really the No. 1 receiver in the country – it’s not like Early Doucet, Demetrius Byrd and LaFell are chopped liver – and they have, or will have the NFL money to prove it.

All the receivers in the world don’t do any good if there isn’t a decent offensive line to protect a young quarterback. In a crucial move, junior tackle Ciron Black decided to forego the NFL. With Herman Johnson and Brett Helms graduating, it’s pretty critical to maintain three or more starters on the offensive front.

Charles Scott’s return is a big boost to any offense, but it’d be a little bit easier to replace Scott with Keiland Williams, Richard Murphy, Stevan Ridley or Michael Ford. With Lyle Hitt possibly switching to a new position at center, it’s important to maintain starters at the always-important tackle spots with returning starters.

So LSU endured its worst season of the Les Miles era and the world isn’t over. The Tigers landed three very impressive new coaches and will finish with a top-five recruiting class, possibly even the No. 1 class in the country. On top of that, the Tigers head into the offseason with a very manageable amount of attrition and it looks likely that 8-5 record will be an anomaly after all.

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